Tilmon’s transformation complete

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The first time Corey Frazier met Jeremiah Tilmon, the lanky 13-year-old tried to hide behind his mother as she dropped him off for a basketball workout. Standing around six feet tall herself, Tilmon’s mother, April Lewis, provided a good buffer, but she forced her son to stay at the workout with Frazier, the head coach of John Burroughs high school and the Brad Beal Elite AAU team in St. Louis. Even after Lewis left, Frazier recalled, he and the other coaches “literally had to drag (Tilmon) out on the court to be involved.”

For most of his life, Tilmon has been that way, preferring to stay out of the spotlight. But as he grew to 6-foot-10 and high-major basketball coaches came calling, fading into the background became impossible. For years, expectations piled onto his broad shoulders: fans wanting him to live up to his top-50 billing, coaches imploring him to dominate like his physical gifts suggested he should, family counting on him to lift them from poverty with a professional basketball career.

Tilmon struggled to bear the weight of those expectations. He questioned why others saw so much in him and pressed to live up to their hopes. He hit a low point last season when, not only did his stats dip, but Missouri actually played its best basketball of the season with Tilmon out of the lineup due to injury, Reed Nikko taking his place as the starting center.

So, last offseason, Tilmon adjusted his approach. The result has been far and away his best basketball season ever. As he prepares to play what will almost certainly be his final game at Mizzou Arena on Saturday, Tilmon is on pace to record career-best figures in points, rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage, minutes played and foul rate. He’s done all that while serving as the face of the program and a leader in the locker room, two roles that he would have shrank from during the past three years. In the last 12 months, Tilmon has transformed himself from a frustrating player advised to return to school by NBA scouts to one who, his head coach believes, will leave Missouri better than he found it, poised to deliver on his promise to provide for his family.

“I just think if he continues to do the things he’s doing right now, he’ll have a chance to be a 10-year NBA guy,” Cuonzo Martin said. “If he continues to do the things he’s doing right now, then I think he can fit with any team because of his character, his makeup and he’s willing to listen and work.”

Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon has logged career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage, minutes played and foul rate during his senior season.
Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon has logged career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage, minutes played and foul rate during his senior season. (Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics)

It didn’t take long for Missouri fans to see why Tilmon had been so highly-touted as a prospect. The demon he would battle for the next few seasons surfaced just as quickly.

During Missouri’s Showdown for Relief scrimmage against Kansas prior to the start of the 2017-18 season — Tilmon’s first “game” in a Tiger uniform — Tilmon scored 10 points, including two thunderous slam dunks. He also recorded seven fouls in 13 minutes.

Tilmon, who had originally signed with Illinois but flipped to Missouri when the Illini fired head coach John Groce and the Tigers hired Martin, arrived in Columbia as a basketball craze enveloped the long-dormant program. The previous spring, former head coach Kim Anderson had been fired and replaced with Martin. Martin promptly signed the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, headlined by the top player in the nation, Michael Porter Jr. The Tigers sold out season tickets before the first game tipped off.

The adjustment from high school to college ball — both in terms of the speed of the game on the floor and the scrutiny he endured off it — proved drastic for Tilmon. That generally manifested itself in the form of fouls. Tilmon regularly found himself out of position, and in an effort to live up to the hopes of his coaching staff and fan base, he didn’t want to give up any easy baskets, so he resorted to fouling. He averaged a whopping 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes and fouled out of 10 games as a freshman.

“I was too busy worrying about people not scoring on me, and that was how I was getting in foul trouble,” Tilmon explained. “If somebody had me beat, I still would just go foul them anyways so they wouldn’t get the bucket, and I was too busy worrying about the wrong things, what everybody was saying, stuff like that.”

Tilmon also developed a reputation as a player who wasn’t going to back down from a fight, and opponents used that to get under his skin. Even though Frazier called Tilmon a “gentle giant” off the floor, if someone pushes him, he’ll push back. A lot of his foul trouble early in his career resulted from Tilmon getting wrapped up in a one-on-one physical battle with the player guarding him.

While Tilmon’s foul rate has dipped each of his four years at Missouri, the problem didn’t go away after his freshman season. If anything, the perception of him as a foul-prone player created a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Tilmon worried so much about committing fouls that he’d either play passive or an early whistle would spin him out and he’d compound the issue with another mistake shortly thereafter. If he drew criticism for his lack of aggression, the next time out, he’d get caught up in a wrestling match with an opposing forward, which would result in fouls.

A key breakthrough came when Tilmon stopped dwelling on the questionable calls made by officials or the tactics used by opponents to bait him into fouls and started focusing on his own mistakes. Martin pointed to his willingness to watch and address his shortcomings as a sign of Tilmon’s maturity. He’s only fouled out two times across his last 26 games. This year, he’s averaging 4.1 fouls per 40 minutes and playing nearly 28 minutes per game, both career bests.

“That’s the maturity of a basketball player, to see it from a different lens, or you sit back and watch yourself like, man, I fouled, I ran the guy over, what was I thinking there?” Martin said. “That’s maturity. … And sometimes that’s a hard mirror to look into. I always say to our guys, you gotta be able to look in the mirror. But he did a great job looking in the mirror, realizing, nah, man, the referees aren’t out to get me. No, I need to get better.”

That’s just one example of what virtually everyone who knows Tilmon points to as the area in which he’s made the biggest strides as a senior: his mindset. There’s a sense of calm, a poise, around Tilmon this year that wasn’t there before and that has allowed him to not only stay on the floor longer, but play better while he’s on it.

“We were playing in a game on the road earlier this year and Jeremiah got two-hand shoved into a ball screen, he got called for an offensive foul,” said assistant coach Chris Hollender, who works with Missouri’s big men during practices. “And he just walked down the floor, went and just ready to play defense. It was nothing. So I feel a calmness, I think everybody feels a calmness, from Jeremiah. A poise, confidence, and I think that just comes with finally trusting the process and his journey that he’s been on and just quietly taking care of business every day.”

One factor in Tilmon’s mental growth has been taking the time to understand his strengths as a player. For all his struggles as an underclassman, Martin said, Tilmon has always been eager to improve, asking the coaches what he needs to work on. But for much of his college career, he would compare himself to other players, be it opponents or teammates like Porter Jr. and his brother Jontay Porter, and try to make his game more like theirs. Last offseason, Martin implored Tilmon to focus, instead, on finding his own strengths and accentuating them. Tilmon acknowledged that he would likely never shoot the ball from the perimeter like the Porter brothers. What could separate him from other bigs, he decided, was his rebounding, his ability to run the floor for his size and his motor.

That represented another breakthrough moment. During the summer, Tilmon dedicated himself to getting into the best shape of his life. Even after Missouri’s team returned to campus in the fall, he would come to the facility outside of practice times to work out on his own just about every day. Now, every time he takes the floor, his main objectives are to get 10 rebounds, beat his man in transition and play hard, letting the scoring come to him. Tilmon is averaging 7.6 rebounds per game this season, 2.5 more than his previous career high. Missouri as a team checks in at No. 167 in tempo, per KenPom, after never ranking higher than No. 263 during Tilmon’s first three seasons.

When he’s rebounding and running the floor well, Tilmon said, the scoring tends to take care of itself.

“When I just had the mindset that, like, I was going to go into games just getting 10 rebounds and don’t worry about the points, for some reason, I always just have a good game,” he said. “I can let the game come to me instead of being out there, forcing shots up over three or four players.”

Tilmon believes that approach is why the occasional flashes of brilliance he showed during his first three seasons have turned into consistent production this year. The more it worked to let the game come to him, the more he realized he didn’t have to press all the time to play like the all-SEC big man coaches told him he could be.

Since Missouri’s win over Bradley on Dec. 22, when Tilmon drew a foul, made a layup and knocked down the free throw to give the Tigers a win in the final seconds, he has averaged 14.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in 29.2 minutes per game. He has more double-doubles (seven) during that span than single-digit scoring efforts (five), as well as his two highest-scoring games ever: 25 points at Arkansas and 33 in an overtime win against TCU.

“I think, like anything, like even a great artist or writer or musician, you have to see success first,” Martin said. “… There was going to come a time and a point when we were playing an actual game and he had to see himself having success. And he saw that. So now, you see the guy that he is because he saw himself having success.”

Jeremiah Tilmon has found himself in foul trouble far less frequently as a senior.
Jeremiah Tilmon has found himself in foul trouble far less frequently as a senior. (USA Today)

The other key to Tilmon’s mental maturation has been not putting so much pressure on himself. It wasn’t just the expectations from fans or coaches that used to bother him. Since his middle school days, Tilmon has viewed basketball as a vessel to provide for his family. Like Martin, he grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, where the median per capita income is less than $17,000 per year and the poverty rate is 33.4 percent, according to the most recent census.

Basketball represented Tilmon’s ticket out of East St. Louis. His hope has always been to use his playing career to do the same for his parents, grandparents and sisters, as well as his four-year-old son, T.J. That responsibility used to weigh on him, causing him to focus more on proving critics wrong or imposing his will on an opponent instead of winning games.

“Since I was little, that’s all I’ve known was basketball,” Tilmon said. “Like, I could turn everybody’s life (around). And all that, it used to put a lot of pressure on me.”

It was the loss of one of those family members that took some of the pressure off Tilmon’s shoulders. Last summer, his grandmother Darlene Tilmon died after contracting COVID-19. Jeremiah had always been close with his grandmother, and he said her passing represented his first experience losing an immediate family member. The grief both sharpened his desire to improve his draft stock with his senior season and also reinforced the fragility of life — that nothing, not even basketball, is guaranteed, and he needed to enjoy his final season at Missouri.

“It just woke me up, for real,” Tilmon said. “I just took basketball, life, everything way more serious.”

Frazier, who worked frequently with Tilmon when players were away from campus last offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, noticed the change when Tilmon took some of the pressure off himself.

“You want to provide for your family, but it wasn’t time for him to do it yet, and I think now that he’s grown into his own, he’s matured more, he’s ready to get it done,” Frazier said. “So that’s why there’s no pressure on him. You’ve done everything you can possibly do to get prepared for this moment, so just go play now.”

Tilmon lost another family member a few months later. His other grandmother passed away in February. Tilmon took a leave of absence to be with his family and missed two games as a result. Watching from home as Missouri lost both games, he said, was tough. But Martin said it was important Tilmon take time to grieve with his family so that, when he returned, he would be at peace and could continue to play with an even keel.

His first game back, Tilmon scored 17 points. In the perfect illustration of his focus this season, letting the game come to him, Tilmon didn’t miss a shot, making all five of his field goals and all seven free throw attempts. Martin praised the maturity with which Tilmon handled the death of his grandmother, saying that’s probably not something he could have done as a freshman.

“While you’re in the midst of playing a sport and live games, that’s hard,” he said. “So I have to muster up the energy to be supportive for my family, and I have to muster up the energy to be the guy I’m supposed to be for my team. … He’s handled it like a professional, just like this is what I gotta do. And that’s a hard thing to deal with, but I have to do it.”

With Tilmon’s successful season has come a more prominent role as a leader. The kid who once hid behind his mother at the gym has long since had to get used to being in the public spotlight, but this year, Martin has challenged Tilmon to take on a larger role inside the Missouri locker room. Even on a roster loaded with seniors, Martin said, players have gravitated toward Tilmon. Martin pulled him aside recently to remind him that Sean Durugordon, an early enrollee who will begin his freshman season next year but who has been training with Missouri since arriving on campus in January, will watch how Tilmon goes about preparing himself and leading his teammates and copy those behaviors when he becomes an upperclassman.

Having such a positive impact on the program — having, after the win at South Carolina, his teammates talk about how much his presence means to the locker room — might be the area in which Tilmon has grown the most. And as he’s matured, so has Missouri’s program. No player has played more games or minutes in a Missouri uniform than Tilmon since Martin took over as head coach. In that time, the Tiger program has improved from averaging nine wins per season to the cusp of making its second NCAA Tournament in the last four years.

That will forever be part of Tilmon’s legacy. And that ranks right up there with the ability to support his family as far as why Martin is most proud of Tilmon.

“What you want to do is you want to be peaceful when you leave a program and say, man, I left that place better than what I came into it,” Martin said. “He stepped into a program that was struggling, now he’s about to be a part of two NCAA Tournament teams. He’s a part of that. So he left the program better than what it was. And that’s important, man.”

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